Oklahoma is the first state to be chosen as a testing site for small unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, to be used to help first responders, state and federal officials announced Thursday.
The robotic aircraft to be tested will be used for purposes such as search-and-rescue efforts or responding to natural disasters such as tornadoes and fires, Gov. Mary Fallin said.
Drones for use by the military or police investigations will not be tested at the Oklahoma site, she said.
“It's important for Oklahoma to be on the cutting edge of that research and technology and development and developing the type of skilled, educated work force that will continue to help the industry grow,” she said.
One of seven
Tests will be conducted in restricted air space over Fort Sill near Lawton, said John Appleby, director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's program for robotic aircraft for public safety. Oklahoma was one of seven states considered for the testing program.
The state's central location was a key factor because companies will be bringing aircraft to be tested and public safety officials from across the country will be coming to observe and participate in the tests, he said.
Plenty of flying days in Oklahoma also were a factor, Appleby said.
Homeland Security is expected to spend about $1.4 million on the program in its first year of operations, Fallin said. The program is expected to last at least three years.
“It places Oklahoma in the top leadership position for unmanned aerials systems research,” she said. “It will reap great benefits once again for our economy.”
Work is expected to begin this fall at the University Multispectral Laboratories flight center, which is affiliated with Oklahoma State University, near Lawton, Fallin said.
The Oklahoma National Guard, which often helps local and state agencies respond to disasters, also will be involved in the program.
“It's important that we have the absolute best tools available to protect life and property,” said Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, the state's adjutant general.
Helping ground forces
Deering, who at one point commanded 23,000 soldiers from several states that responded to destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said additional aerial surveillance would have helped save lives and direct forces on the ground in New Orleans.
“Real-life imagery is vitally important to saving lives and preserving property,” Deering said.
“The availability of unmanned aircraft would have afforded us the capability to more quickly map out areas where we were more immediately needed, instead of depending on dated satellite imagery.”
Drones could be used more readily and economically for search-and-rescue operations, he said. The hourly cost of flying a National Guard helicopter is about $5,400.
Stephen McKeever, who serves as secretary of science and technology on Fallin's Cabinet, said the restricted air space near Fort Sill was a key asset in landing the testing program in Oklahoma.
“This relationship that we have with Fort Sill is vital to the development of this industry within the state,” he said.
It's hard to provide an estimate on the number of jobs that will be involved with the program, McKeever said.
“Those jobs are all high quality and highly paid, highly technical and skilled jobs,” he said.
“Certainly it will support a number of positions and even new positions. But it will also support additional jobs relating to some of the entities that will have to come to Oklahoma in order to test the equipment.”
The program has the potential to be a significant economic development for Oklahoma, McKeever said.
“This part ... of aerospace is only going to grow,” he said.
“When it becomes more open for commercial activity, we aim for Oklahoma to be extremely well positioned to be certainly one of the go-to states for the development of this industry.”